Everybody in school politics always says it's all about the children. That's almost never true. If you don't believe me, you should have been there last night.
At a spirited, sometimes cantankerous meeting in the auditorium of James Madison High School in South Dallas, prominent black elected officials, former officials and community advocates took a strong united stand on the Dallas school district's tough campaign of school reform aimed at minority schools.
Reacting to news that as many as one-fourth of all Dallas school principals, many of them presumably black, may be fired at the end of the year for doing a lousy job, speakers rose from their seats last night to vehemently defend the jobs of those principals. Some speakers accused superintendent of schools Mike Miles, who is black, of insensitivity to the needs of the black community. Miles was not present.
Vowing trouble ahead for Miles, Dallas NAACP president Dr. Juanita Wallace told the sometimes stormy crowd, "We're all about justice, and what we're looking at now is not justice ...
"We are not going to sit by and allow our black principals to be railroaded out of their positions," Wallace said to applause from about 120 people.
Dallas City Council member Carolyn Davis demanded that district executives sitting together at one side of the room stand up so the audience could see them. She said, "You only have one African-American that's sitting over on that side." The audience cheered Davis and jeered the DISD personnel.
"I think that the superintendent should have been here," she said to even louder applause.
Madison parents and students in the auditorium expressed anger over a rumor that Madison Principal Marian Willard had been notified she will be fired at the end of the year. Willard was not present, and DISD officials at the meeting would not discuss her status. Former school board trustee Ron Price told me Willard has been given notice her contract will not be renewed at the end of the year.
Rated "academically unacceptable" this year by the Texas Education Agency, Madison is one of two high schools I wrote about February 28 that have particularly abysmal academic achievement records. For a closer look at just how bad a job Madison does, go to the Texas Education Agency website and enter the name James Madison in the search box. In the report you get, search for "college readiness indicators."
The state reports have been junked up over the years with all kinds of not-to-be-trusted feel-good data -- some it amounts to "much less illiterate than they could be" -- so the one objective external measurement on the page is "examinees-criterion" under SAT results. That's the percentage of students who achieved what the district considers a minimum passing grades on the SAT tests.
At Madison last year that percentage was 1. Yes, 1 percent. The statewide percentage was 49.3.
DISD personnel at the meeting last night were mum about Willard's fate for obvious reasons. It's a personnel matter, and they can screw themselves up legally by talking about it in public. But that didn't stop City Council member Davis from subjecting them to a particularly nasty bit of bullying and public humiliation midway through the meeting.
Pointing to the officials from the school district, Davis said, "You need to come on up here. Come up here!"
After much exchanging of "not me" looks, two brave DISD upper management types eventually dragged themselves forward. One was school leadership chief Sylvia Reyna. The other I did not recognize.
While the pair ducked their heads and stared at their shoes like delinquents, Davis badgered them to tell her and all in attendance why Willard was being fired.
"Why was she let go?" Davis demanded.
They stared at their toes in silence.
Davis then demanded they make written notes of her demands. "Did you write that down?" she demanded of Reyna.
Reyna seemed to nod yes.
"Show me," Davis said, reaching over and pulling Reyna's notepad from her hands. This was all accompanied by laughter and jeers from the audience.
"It's not written down!" Davis said to more cheers. She then went on to suggest Miles will be in trouble with Dallas City Hall if he fails to mend his ways.
"The first thing as a council member I want to know," she said, "I want it in my office, why this lady was let go from this school. And it can't be because she's not doing a good job. You've got to find some other reason."
Demanding that the DISD officials show up in her City Hall office with answers -- I think she said it had to happen today -- Davis said, "You're going to have to produce."
The one African-American elected official who stayed notably neutral throughout the meeting was the person who called it, school board trustee Bernadette Nuttall. She conducted the meeting as a kind of neutral referee.
School board President Lew Blackburn lurked just outside in the corridor but did not enter the room. DISD trustee Dan Micciche sat in a front row in wide-eyed silence.
At the end of the meeting, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price stepped to the front of the room and quietly beseeched the audience to call Willard and urge her to fight her firing all the way through the legally prescribed appeals process. Price suggested all of the fired principals in the district should avail themselves of the full process, which eventually would make every individual firing a matter to be voted on by the school board.
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At one point an audience member shouted to Nuttall to ask if she could summon the necessary votes on the board to save Willard's job. She shrugged and said she didn't know.
So this is where school reform will go. Black leadership will line up to defend black school district job-holders, no matter what the academic results may be for black students. White and Mexican-American community leaders probably also will rally to the defense of popular principals in their own communities. All of that intense community and voter pressure will come to bear finally on the school district trustees, who can be expected to start trading votes at that point.
So is there any kind of organized constituency that can be mustered to provide offsetting grassroots support for Miles and his team of reformers? The people most egregiously harmed by the failures of the school system are third-graders, because that's the point beyond which students who can't read or do arithmetic are lost. From fourth grade on, illiterate children enter what's sometimes called the "school-to-prison pipeline," unable to read, unable to understand what's going on, bored and misbehaving.
So I guess the ultimate fate of school reform may be in the hands of the third-graders. I will be the first to let you know if the poor little tykes start calling their own community meetings.